Tuesday 27 September 2011

State of unease: "Red, White & Blue"

I concluded my review of director Simon Rumley's previous feature, the straight-to-DVD curio The Living and the Dead, with the thought that here was a British filmmaker with many of the right ideas, and a dire need for better funding to realise them. Well, Rumley's now gone West, taking the American independent route for his uneasy psychological thriller Red White & Blue, which has at its centre the kind of drifter male writer-directors tend to make male, impose all manner of autobiographical traits upon, and then romanticise unduly. Amanda Fuller's Erica, however, is a young working-class woman who hops from one sexual tryst to the next - taking on anyone, everyone, three at a time, an old dude she picks up in one of Austin's bars, allcomers - enforcing but one golden rule: she'll never fuck the same guy twice.

Another man drifts into her orbit, but this one's a bearded weirdo (Noah Taylor) whose opening gambit, in the corridor of the boarding house they've wound up sharing, is to regale her with tales of animal torture. An Iraq veteran (or so he claims), Taylor's Nate comes to protect Erica from her more abusive co-workers, inspiring a whole new emotion in her: affection, rather than lust this once, further complicated by the obvious fact this outsider would appear, to any better-adjusted onlookers, to be perhaps the last man in America who deserves it.

If nothing else, the film serves as an example of the kind of creative freedoms available to filmmakers willing to stick it out under the radar: these characters probably wouldn't even be allowed in to see a studio movie, let alone become the subjects of one. The film is full of leftfield hikes and switchbacks: just as this central relationship is taking shape, Rumley shifts focus onto a garage-band rocker with a feather in his ear and a sickly mother. Only gradually do we come to realise why it is we're now following him, and it changes the shape of everything we've seen up to this point. Along the way, Red White & Blue builds up a portrait of hard, unhappy lives, and the reflexes followed and shortcuts taken in the hope of making them easier - not to mention the complications that result.

Belatedly, Rumley takes what may just be a turn too far, into particular genre territory, and the threat of violence, previously modulated to a quiet, nagging hum in Taylor's performance, suddenly becomes deafening. This director continues to take life and death seriously, which elevates him above so many of his peers, but this derangement - of both the character and the film, which suddenly affects the stroboscopic flicker of a Gaspar Noe headfuck - damages Red White & Blue; I wouldn't blame you if you made your excuses and left after 75 minutes, and it wouldn't surprise me if some accused it not so much of jumping the shark as bounding over SeaWorld, leaving a noxious trail of excrement behind in every pool.

What kept me watching - grimly compelled, I think I ought to qualify - is that unlike Rumley's pokily eccentric predecessors, this is a properly widescreen experience, and thus a step forward of some form, however wrong-footing. DoP Milton Kam brings back vibrant frescoes of Texan mainstreets; it's edited with exceptional economy; and acted with total commitment by performers unafraid to look spotty or terrified, to have their faces creased or flecked with vomit. It is in such passages that you realise Rumley will probably never be a populist (if this is his idea of torture porn, it's altogether arch), but collectively they make for a jolting, unpredictable experience, one that establishes a chain of misery in which one abuse begets another, generally more malicious one. Those who survive it will be sure to know the stress in the title falls firmly on the final syllable.

Red White & Blue opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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